A Quick Break at Pico Sands, Nasugbu

Today marks 12 days since getting my redundancy notice at work. I’ll be traveling to Hong Kong on May 20th and staying for around two weeks – available for meetings and also appreciate any tips on networking events I should attend. (I’m already registered for Cloud Expo Asia and planning to go to Web Wednesday.)

I received the official news of being made redundant on May 4th (the day after my birthday). We already had a reservation for a holiday at a beach resort for 4 days starting on May 6th. I decided to keep that because getting away for a few days to chill wasn’t going to hurt – also my wife had come in for my birthday and I thought she needed a “real” vacation as well.

Actually I’d waited until almost the last minute to book something and May being summer in the Philippines, a lot of the places I had in mind were already fully booked for that weekend. I decided it had to be a place I could drive to because I didn’t want to deal with the airports here.

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Sony MDR-1000X Bluetooth Headphones

So, dealing with listening to music on the iPhone 7+.

For the last couple of months, I’ve had the Dragonfly Red DAC and Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 and been quite happy with the sound, not to forget that I now have more than 2,000 songs in Apple’s lossless format on the device. But to be honest, this set up was a literal and figurative pain. Literal, because the MSR7’s grip my head tightly and become uncomfortable after an hour. Figurative because I’d have to plug in so much stuff and then deal with the cord dangling down (and sometimes getting the cord stuck on stuff in crowded situations).

I do have one pair of Bluetooth headphones, the original Parrot Zik 1.0, which I’d bought used several years ago and had fallen out of love with. Since I was in Hong Kong, I thought I might get myself a new pair of Bluetooth something but was hoping to get away without spending very much.

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NAIA Sucks & Philippines Airlines Is Goofy

The Manila airport is awful in just about every way you can imagine. Almost no public transportation to or from the airport. Horrible traffic in both the departure and arrival areas. Rip-off taxi touts allowed to operate openly. Long lines. Air conditioning that barely works. Different security regulations and procedures at each terminal. Good luck if you need to transfer between two terminals – it’s probably quicker to fly to Hong Kong than to get from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

Someone spent billions of pesos renovating Terminal 1, and soon after it reopened the roof collapsed. And a similar event at Terminal 3.

Today, they had to shut down the main runway at the airport for most of the day because of holes.

You really have to wonder if anyone in charge has even the slightest clue of what they’re doing. Or perhaps all of the money that should be going to maintenance is going into peoples’ pockets. Maybe Duterte should be threatening to shoot the corrupt – surely that would bring about better results than going after low level drug dealers.

Terminal 2 is the worst of the worst.

I get to Terminal 2. There’s a loooong line outside the terminal waiting to get past the first security check at the front door. I play the “senior citizen card” – I’m over 60 so I get to skip the line. That’s okay. We already checked in online and I have printed out my boarding passes, so we follow the signs that point to check-in for the Hong Kong flight, but there is no bag drop line there – it’s all the way on the other side of the terminal. The person online in front of me has 6 bags and for some reason it’s taking the agent 20 minutes to process those bags.

Once in the immigration area, I have to go to the line to pay the insane P2,170 I have to pay every time I leave the country since I have an ACR card. Except in front of me is a family – father, mother, 3 kids – and it literally takes the agent 20 minutes to check their passports, print the receipts, collect the money and give them their change. 20 minutes!

Once I get inside, public toilets are few and far between (there are none in the wing that has gates 9 through 12). Everything is dirty, every area is congested.Not enough places to sit. Smoking lounge closed. You can get better food at a 7-11 than in any of the “food kiosks”. I pay 85 pesos (almost US$2) for a tuna sandwich on white bread that has an ounce of tuna on it if I’m lucky, maybe less, and one teeny slice of tomato.  A can of Coke costs twice as much at the airport than at a 7-11. A pack of cigarettes costs 50% more at the airport duty free than at a 7-11.

I’m forced into Terminal 2 because my company insists on booking me on Philippines Airlines. I still don’t understand why. Usually Cathay Pacific is the same price or within $20. Cebu Pacific is much cheaper but I’m not allowed to use them. Either of those would let me travel via Terminal 3, which has actual restaurants, an actual smoking lounge, and saves me 30 minutes of travel each way.

As airlines go, Philippines is not that bad, I suppose. The economy class food is no better and no worse than what you’d get on Cathay Pacific. Seat space is okay. No screens at all – you’re supposed to connect your phone or tablet to wifi on the plane and then stream video. I haven’t tried it so can’t comment on how well it works or doesn’t work.

I had to laugh when I landed in Hong Kong yesterday and checked my email.

Philippines Airlines had sent me a flight status update email about my flight – and they sent it after the flight took off!

Here’s the email.

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And here it is again, with the timestamp showing:

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So for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 2:35 PM, they sent me a status update email at 3:04 PM. So when I landed, I was able to receive an email telling me what time I would land. Except that we didn’t actually take off until after 3 PM and didn’t touch down until almost exactly 5 PM.

Anyway, I’m in Hong Kong now. Where things actually work. A day later, reminded of that not terrible but terribly annoying trip, having had two dinners at two long-time favorite restaurants here, seeing some friends, getting a bit of shopping done at Wanchai Computer Centre, I realize that sometimes I really do miss Hong Kong.

Anthony Bourdain and President Obama in Hanoi

President Barack Obama is in Vietnam this week, in part to announce lifting restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, something that is probably meant as a clear shot at China.

Obama is also stepping out quite a bit more in his final year in office. He did an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He even went to Marc Maron’s garage to tape an episode of What The Fuck. (By way of contrast, Maron had to travel to Lorne Michaels’ New York City office for an extended interview that resolved years’ worth of issues.)

So here’s another unusual Obama move – having dinner in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain, filmed for an episode of Parts Unknown that will air in September on CNN.

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They ate at a restaurant called Bún chả Hương Liên. As has been widely reported, the cost of the dinner for two was US$6 and Bourdain picked up the check.

I’ve only been to Hanoi once (in 2005). I did have Bun cha on that trip and thought it was one of the best things I ever ate.

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(Not my photo.)

I’ve subsequently ordered it in another places in Vietnam and in Vietnamese restaurants around the world and it has never been as good as that as that first time sitting on a street corner on one of those low plastic stools.

We’ll get to see and hear the edited highlights of their conversation in a few months, but I’ll remain jealous of what they ate and hopeful that I’ll have a chance to get to Hanoi a second time (and file away the details on this restaurant for that trip).

 

Cathay Pacific’s Prices Are Not Rational

My mother is coming to Manila in March. She’s 94 years old and a cousin will be flying with her. Cathay Pacific non-stop NYC to Hong Kong, three hour lay-over in Hong Kong and then the flight to Manila.

She’s been to Hong Kong four times (the last time about 5 years ago) but never to the Philippines. My cousin has never been to Asia before.

So I thought, maybe it would be nice if I was to fly out to Hong Kong and meet them at the HK airport and fly back to Manila with them. It might make things a bit less confusing or stressful for them.

Well, never mind. My mother’s flights, Cathay Pacific NYC/Manila round trip are costing US$900. Meanwhile Cathay Pacific Manila/HK same day round trip is US$500. (If I was to stay in HK for 3 days, the price drops down to US$275.)

So I thought, okay, what if I fly Manila/HK on Cebu Pacific and then HK/Manila on Cathay Pacific?

Unbelievably, the one way ticket costs more than US$2,400! I don’t know how that can rationally be explained.

I could fly same day round trip Cebu Pacific for US$160, but that would defeat the purpose of my going, wouldn’t it?

Two Unhappyish Weeks

Feel free to skip if you don’t want to read a long post that is essentially me bitching and moaning about my life. First world problems.

On July 4th, while most Americans were celebrating Independence Day, I got on a plane for a two week trip. There was very little fun to be had on this trip and I came home to greater sadness.

I had to go to Ottawa for business. And since I was going to be so close to New York City, I booked a trip to go there to visit my mother for a week. She’s 94, lives alone, and it was just over a year since I’d last seen her. And just two days before the trip, my dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just weeks to live.

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(Bogey, but quite a few years ago.)

Since the Ottawa trip was for a client project and the project is being billed on a T&M basis, I had to have a plane ticket that was roundtrip Manila/Ottawa. I’d have to handle getting to NYC on my own, and I’d have to return to Manila through Ottawa, even though that would mean a quasi-insane itinerary. The only alternative would have been to skip NYC altogether, but that wasn’t an option.

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I flew Philippine Airlines from Manila to Vancouver. They rolled out what must be the shittiest jumbo jet in their fleet. So aside from some of the worst airline food I’ve ever encountered, no individual video screens and no power at the seats. I was able to upgrade to a front row coach seat for US$50 so I did that, only to then find out that the flight was more than half empty and I could have easily had an entire row to stretch across (though at least my company will reimburse me for that $50).

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In Ottawa, I stayed at a vaguely historic hotel, the Lord Elgin, walking distance from the Parliament buildings and other touristy spots like the Byward Market. All of the restaurants in easy walking distance of the hotel, at least all of the ones I ate in, were depressingly ordinary or worse. And when I got sick the second night, I had to walk 5 blocks to the nearest still-open pharmacy to stock up on meds.

In terms of food, I was not going to try poutine. I remember when I first encountered it in Hong Kong and asked what it was. French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. I thought someone was having a laugh but turns out it is a real thing. I’ve tried it in Hong Kong and in Manila and while I presume it should be better in Ottawa, it wasn’t something that I felt I needed to pursue.

But I did follow my friends’ recommendations for Montreal smoked meat. I had it at a branch of Dunn’s Famous Deli, where I presume it should be as good as one can find. I found it inferior to pastrami – different cut of meat and very different preparation so while the end result looks similar, I’ll take pastrami any day (which I did, once I got to New York).

The Ottawa Blues Festival kicked off while I was still in Ottawa. More than 100 acts, ranging from Kanye West to Deep Purple to Richard Thompson to Robyn Hitchcock. I would have been thrilled to see the latter two. And some of the acts were staying in the same hotel I was in. (At one point I rode up in the lift with a bunch of Brits, my age or older, all carrying guitars. I didn’t recognize them but we chatted a bit and when I wished them “a great night,” one responded by saying “Bless you.”) Since I got sick early in the trip, I had to keep it together long enough to get the work done, which meant every night after dinner back to my hotel room. No live music, no drinking, no fun whatsoever. I could have chosen to extend my trip a few days, but it would have cost me over US$200 to rebook my plane tickets, not to mention the cost of hotels, and so I decided to live without it.

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Ottawa, overall, beautiful city (especially in summer time) but not the most exciting place I’ve ever been. I will probably need to return before the end of the year; maybe I’ll have time to find something that appeals more to me.

The day I finished up and flew down to NYC was especially unfun. (I described it in a previous post.) And then, 8 days of dealing with my mom while also Skyping with my wife and finding out that my dog was declining faster than expected and it started to become a real concern over whether or not he’d still be alive once I got home.

My mother is 94 and lives alone. I have no brothers or sisters but I do have a few cousins who still live in NYC and look in on her. Some of her neighbors also help out from time to time. Her health is quite good for 94. Her eyesight is declining but the biggest issue is that she doesn’t eat. She’s crazy thin and has no energy and I basically had to be the adult and force her to eat more than she normally does.

The plan is to move her to Manila before the end of the year. “Will I like Manila?” she asks. “No, you won’t. You’ll hate it. But you’ll love the house and you’ll love that you won’t be alone any more.” But now her thing is that the room we have for her in the house isn’t exactly to her liking. She wants a room big enough for a queen sized bed, a reclining chair and a couple of pieces of furniture. Actually the room is probably big enough for all of the furniture she wants as long as she goes with a single bed. She’s 5 feet tall and weighs under 100 pounds but says she can’t sleep in a single bed and I must be crazy to think that she’s going to end her life in a closet. Fine, I tell her. I’ve done the best I can, and if that’s not good enough for you, stay here all alone or go live with my brother.

My mother doesn’t handle technology well. Of course, she’s 94 years old! But that doesn’t stop her from wanting stuff. (Now you know where I get it from.) She wants an iPhone, even though she can’t see the screen and never uses the mobile phone she has. She has a Kindle 2 and saw my Kindle Voyage and wanted that. So we ordered one from Amazon, it arrive and I spent a couple of hours getting it all set up and getting all of her library loaded onto it, and within 30 seconds she decided that she preferred the old Kindle. I told her to not make up her mind within 30 seconds and to at least spend a couple of days with it before returning it. By the time I left, she said she’d keep it, but I think she’s still reaching for the older, heavier, clunkier model first each time.

Verizon had come to her building and we went and talked to the sales guys. She could get everything she had with Optimum and for US$40 a month less. So we did the switch. It not only made sense financially but I would be there to learn the system and teach it to her and get everything re-set up for her. It took the installation guy four hours to get everything set up. And then the first difficulty was that all of the channels she likes now have different numbers. “I want channel 40.” “What station is that? What’s the name?” “I don’t know. It has the show with the dog.” So that was fun. Then I discovered that they hadn’t turned on her voicemail yet. “How can I live without a phone?” “You have a phone. It still works. Just the voicemail doesn’t work yet.” “I never should have switched. I want to switch back.”

Actually the oddest thing about the set up was the Internet speed. Speedtest.net was showing 16 Mbps for Optimum and 55 Mbps for Verizon. And yet, my downloads were slower with Verizon. With Optimum, I was seeing a very steady 2 Mbps for downloading. With Verizon FIOS, things would start out at 6 or 7 Mbps but for larger files, the speed would rapidly drop down to just 250 Kbps (or worse). I’ve read various things about this – it’s the crappy internet modem/router Verizon makes you use, or they’re not really being net neutral for service. Whatever. It was a temporary joy to be in a place that had both fast and unlimited internet. Given that I have no landline at home and am stuck tethering to my iPhone at extortionate rates and tortoise-slow speeds, I took advantage of it for the brief time I would have it.

Meanwhile, my dog continued to decline. My wife was getting frantic. We agreed that we didn’t want him to suffer but she said she would not be able to make any final decision without my being there. She was bringing him to the local vet almost daily. At one point he stopped eating and seemed to be unable to walk, but then he came back a little bit. I got my dog Bogey when he was 8 weeks old. He’s 12-1/2 years old now and I’ve been the only constant in his life. Even though there has been a succession of wives, girlfriends, maids looking after him, he always remembers he’s my dog or I’m his human. I know at this point it’s a matter of weeks, or perhaps days, and not months. I’m not ready to deal with this. One never is.

So, NYC, one week, mostly stuck in The Bronx. My final day was a shopping day, first B&H Photo/Video for me, and then Times Square for souvenirs. And, um, to watch women wearing nothing but body paint posing for photos with children. When did this become a thing?

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During the course of the trip I also saw some friends and relatives, had some nice Mexican and great tequila at a place called Dos Caminos, near the 14th Street Apple store, and got to my favorite BBQ spot in Harlem, Dinosaur BBQ.

I had to book my own Ottawa/NYC travel. And while I could get a direct flight from Ottawa to LaGuardia, coming back I was unable to get a direct flight that would allow me to make my Ottawa/Vancouver flight, so I had to choose a one-stop.

First I had to fly from LaGuardia to Montreal. When I checked in, I showed them I had two separate itineraries and since 3 of 4 flights were Air Canada, could I check in and check my bags all the way through? No. I could only check in for the first two flights and would need to get my bag in Ottawa and then line up and check in again for the final two flights. And, oh yeah, while my luggage for Ottawa to Manila was free, I had to pay to check my bag for the first two flights.

It was raining and my flight left one hour late. I talked to the stewardess. “Due to the delay, when we get to Montreal I will have less than one hour for immigration, customs and getting to my connecting flight. Will I be able to make it?” “I don’t know.” Gee, that was helpful.

So we land in Montreal. I have to walk what seems like a mile to get to immigration, wait on line there, then wait to get my bag so I can clear Canadian customs, then check my bag in again and then get to the departure gate. Somehow I managed to do all of that and get to the gate just as flight #2 started boarding. No time to go outside for a smoke. No time to get food or something to drink. Air Canada serves food on board, and it looked pretty decent, but you had to pay for anything other than a soft drink and it seems to me that when one is paying what I was paying for these flights, a sandwich wouldn’t have killed them.

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Then a one hour flight on a propeller plane to Ottawa. I think the last time I flew in a prop plane was in the 1970s. I was seated right next to the propellor and looked out as this thing started spinning and convinced myself there was no way this could work. Duh.

So now, back in Ottawa. I had to wait and get my bag again, and then check in for my final two flights. Two hours to kill. Lots of time to get a meal and smoke. Then the 5 hour flight to Vancouver. I’ll say this for Air Canada, great coach seats. Plenty of legroom. Very comfortable. I dug out my laptop and watched Gone Baby Gone. I’d just read the book (I’m on a Dennis Lehane kick at the moment) and wanted to see how much they’d changed for the film – a lot, as it turns out.

In Vancouver, I lined up again. Even though I didn’t need to claim and check my bag again, I wanted to do that $50 upgrade to a front row coach seat again, which I was able to do. I had another meal at the Vancouver airport because I knew the food on the flight would compare poorly to prison food.

This time the flight was pretty full, there were video screens and power at the seats. They have inflight WiFi, too expensive to be worthwhile ($5 for 30 minutes, $10 for an hour, $20 for short haul flights, $40 for long haul flights). And while other airlines are using this to stream entertainment directly to flyers’ own devices, Philippine Airlines is using it just for WiFi.

We landed in Manila at 3:40 AM. NAIA terminal 2. Four international flights came in at the same time and while this may happen every day, as you might have guessed, in Manila this means chaos. The screens at the baggage claim belts kept blanking out and not showing which belt had the baggage for which flight. I had to wait almost 90 minutes for my bag.

At 5 AM, I practically had to fight my way out of the airport because just outside of the terminal, it was total chaos. There were hordes of people waiting to meet the people who’d just arrived on those 4 jumbo jets, and no one doing anything resembling crowd control, so almost impossible to push a cart through the people standing around.

And then, of course, tons of taxi touts. The regular queues for taxis were insanely long so I did what I try to never do, go up to one of those white coupon taxi places. I tell them where I’m going and they show me on some chart that it’s 2,300 pesos. This for a taxi ride that would be well under P400 on the meter. They actually had the cojones to tell me it was because there would be so much traffic. At 5 in the morning.

So I got them down to P1,700 – and also got the driver to agree to stop at a 7-11 so I could get something to drink along the way. We made it to my house in under 30 minutes. No traffic at all, although once we hit my village I could see that at 5:30 AM there was already a ton of traffic headed to the exit gate. People leaving for work and kids going to school at 5:30 AM! I gave the driver a nice tip – he did follow my directions rather than suggesting alternative dummy routes and he did manage to find a 7-11 and pull over in a no-stopping zone and wait for me.

I walked in the house, hugged and kissed my wife, and saw my dog. He managed to stand up and come to the door, barely, his tail wagging. He has these huge sores on his back. In the photos my wife sent, I thought they were small, the size of a coin. They’re much bigger. Big enough that I almost started crying then and there. They’ve been cleaned, they’ve been covered with medication, I’m told he has no pain from them, but they look horrendous. His breathing is difficult. I smooshed up a banana and gave it to him and at least he still has an appetite and that constantly wagging tail. But I know it’s just a matter of time, maybe only days and not weeks at this point.

Later, my wife told me she wants to return to Hong Kong. She’s fed up with not being able to find a job in Manila. Discrimination is legal in Manila – age, gender, even height and weight can be specified in job ads. Even to be a manager at a crappy local chain like Inasal requires a college degree, which she doesn’t have. One of her sisters is working in a store and earning the grand sum of 250 pesos a day – that’s about US$5 a day. Far below the legal minimum wage but corruption and shoddy law enforcement ensure that this is commonplace here. Everything we’ve looked into, either she’s too old or too uneducated or it’s a pyramid scheme (aka “multi level marketing”).

Meanwhile she knows that within an hour of stepping off the plane in Hong Kong, she will have a job paying the equivalent of P100,000 a month. She’s bored, she’s frustrated and I can’t blame her. She says she’s too young to give up and just be a housewife and I understand how she feels.

But how is that going to work, us living in separate countries and maybe spending one week together every two or three months? Our helper can’t cook. I’d still be living with her daughter (and I’ll bet her mother would move in here to take care of the kid). Am I being selfish by telling her no, I don’t want her to do that?

So I’m home. Completely jet-lagged (it’s 4:30 AM and I’m wide awake). I’m stressed out about my mother. Stressed out about stuff to do with my job (which I won’t blog about for obvious reasons). Stressed out about my dog. Stressed out that I don’t have internet at home. And now stressed out about my wife.

Sorry if this post seemed excessively bitchy but it was therapeutic for me to get it out.

Not My Best Day

Yesterday was a day filled with bizarre, albeit minor, annoyances. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough little things that I want to write it down and remember it.

I woke up at 6AM. Threw on some clothes and bolted downstairs for a smoke or two (I was staying in a 100% non-smoking hotel in Ottawa) and a walk over to the nearest Tim Horton’s for a coffee. I got back to my room, checked email, and saw that one of the people working for me had managed a more-stupid-than-usual fuck-up and had to spend the next hour getting someone to roll it back. Nothing that I can go into any detail on, just pure carelessness.

I didn’t need to go to the client site that day. I had a couple of hours of work that I could do from the hotel. My flight wasn’t until that night. I checked if I could change it to an earlier flight and saw that I would be charged CA$240 for making a simple change like that. Thanks Air Canada but no thanks.

I managed a slightly later checkout from the hotel, 1 PM, checked my bags and went off for a leisurely lunch.

I don’t think I had a single “great” meal in my week in Ottawa. Every meal was average at best, a few were a complete letdown. It might have been my budget or it might have been that most of the places in walking distance from my hotel were either fast food or tourist traps. Everything I tried, from Montreal smoked meat at a famous deli chain to a “world famous” steak house to some of the faux Brit-styled pubs just wasn’t cutting it for me. My experiences with poutine in Hong Kong and Manila were enough to put me off from ordering it here, where it would probably have been a lot better.

Anyway, 90 minutes later, back to the hotel. I went to the bell desk, handed the man behind the desk the tickets for the two bags I’d checked, and he walked off, never to be seen again. Other staff came up,”are you being helped,” “I think so,” until finally I got someone to walk me to the baggage storage room where I could dig out my bags.

I arrived at the airport about 3-1/2 hours early for my flight. I thought I’d check my bags and then just hang around outside for another hour or two but there was no place to sit and no shade. More than that, since I was flying to the U.S., I couldn’t just check my bag when I checked in. I had to walk it through customs and security, after which one could not go back outside again.

When I did the check-in, I was told that I was the lucky winner, that I was the person chosen for the full-on security screening, choice of full body scan or pat down. This was indicated by 3 S’s printed on my boarding pass. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I chose the full body scan machine since I thought it would be quicker and since the person doing the pat down was not some Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. They put me through the machine twice and each time showed me the resulting output – big yellow blocks over my dick and my butt. (I asked if I could get copies emailed to me for Facebook. No.) So they ended up doing the full pat down on my groin and rear end in full view of everyone else.

I got to the gate to discover that my flight was going to be an hour late. The Tim Horton’s branch there did not have my favorite Tim Horton’s donut – their “Oreo” donut, which is truly disgusting and totally addictive. I pulled out my laptop and had time to watch the 2 hour plus gonzo Japanese film Why Don’t You Play In Hell. A group of high school students who want to make movies and call themselves the Fuck Bombers. A 10 year old girl starring in a TV commercial about toothpaste with an annoying jingle that everyone loves, and she’s the daughter of a yakuza leader. Ten years later, as two warring Yakuza tribes prepare for battle, as the little girl has grown up into a wannabe movie star, and as the Fuck Bombers and their designated Bruce Lee stand-in think their dream is never going to happen, they all come together for a completely ridiculous over the top tribute to Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It’s far too long. The CGI blood splatters look ridiculous, on purpose I’m sure. But it’s completely insane. It’s the kind of movie in which people are holding 35mm film cameras in one hand and machine guns in the other. I probably have not done a good job of describing it so here’s the trailer. “Mankind’s greatest achievement.” – Film.com

So that was the highlight of my day.

At one point I heard my name called on the PA. I went to the counter and showed the woman my boarding pass. “I have to print a new pass for you.” “Am I getting an upgrade?” “There’s no business class on this flight. It’s the same seat.” “Then why am I getting a new boarding pass?” “I’m not allowed to tell you.” Seriously?

So I told the woman forget it. I’ve been detained, I’ve had my private parts publicly patted. I’m not going along with her little mind game. So she picks up the phone and calls someone. I’m three feet away from her and she’s making no attempt to whisper. “I’ve got the full scan passenger here. I need to collect his boarding pass to show that it has the security scan stamps on it and give him a new one. Am I allowed to tell him that?” I mean, I’m right there. I can hear every word she’s saying.

Finally, about one hour late, time to board the plane. They are doing something called SkyCheck. You have what they think is too big a bag for their too tiny plane, you have to hand it over at the plane door. They will take it and put it under the plane and no, you will not get any kind of claim check or other proof that they took your bag.

I get to my seat. I put my Kindle and my bottle of Coke Zero in the seat pocket. The plane is freezing. My sweater is in the bag they forced me to check. I ask if there are blankets. They say no so I ask if I can get something from my checked bag. I go outside, they were just about to load it into the cargo area of the plane. They put it on the motorized ramp, I grab it, pull out my sweater, slide it back down the ramp to them.

I go back to my seat to find out someone has taken it. There are these 3 guys traveling together, they want aisle seats next to each other. I’m not overly fussed. The plane holds about 50 and there’s only 10 or 15 people on the flight. I tell the guy to just give me my stuff and I’ll take the seat in the row behind. He hands me my Kindle. Where’s my Coke? Oh, he thought it was left behind from the previous flight, he gave it to the stewardess to throw away. I say fine, if they’re selling drinks on the flight, he can buy me a coke.

Turns out these three guys are pilots for some air freight company. They’re flying home, which is Rockville Centre, out on Long Island. “Don’t go back to Rockville,” I say. “Huh?” “Oh, it’s an R.E.M. song.” “No it’s not. I’m the world’s biggest R.E.M. fan and I never heard of it.” I pull out my iPhone and play the song.

I tell them I live in the Philippines. They tell me they get to Hong Kong twice a month and have been tempted to take a few days off to go there and find out if everything they’ve heard is true. “It’s true,” I tell them. I can probably guess what it is they’ve heard about.

We get to LaGuardia about an hour late. I pick up my rental car. “Toyota Corolla or something similar” was what the web site said. I get a Mitsubishi Lancer. No bluetooth on the car stereo. I’m flipping around the radio stations and there’s nothing modern alternative rock. Everything is hip hop, Hispanic or classic rock top 40.

Plus on top of that, I manage to get lost. I can’t find the highway Given that I lived in Astoria for 5 years (just minutes away from the airport), this is uniquely embarrassing. The car has no GPS and I don’t have roaming data on my phone so no Google Maps or Waze. At least I know the area well enough to know the general direction I need to take and eventually I make my way to the Triboro Bridge.

Finally made it to my mother’s place, where she soon announced that she decided she doesn’t want to live with us in Manila if her bedroom isn’t large enough for a queen sized bed, a sofa and a couple of pieces of furniture. She’s 94 and can’t be living alone much longer. As an only child I said to her, “Fine, if you don’t like my place, go stay at my brother’s place. I’m sure he’s got a great big room for you.”

So, as I said, nothing momentous, just a “day in the life” filled with lots of tiny frustrations. Glad it’s over. But one week to go before I return home and I think I’m going to be having quite a few more frustrating days, not the least of which will be my return flight home, which for reasons too difficult to explain will be NY -> Toronto -> Ottawa -> Vancouver -> Manila, all in coach. I am SO looking forward to that.

 

 

I Guess I’m Getting Old

Duh.

I’m just back from a brief business trip to the UK. 24 hours of travel each way in order to sit in two days of meetings. I’ve been traveling to London regularly since 1972 and have been there more times than I can count but this trip was one of only two to the UK in which I got no closer to London than Heathrow.

My company’s UK office is in Surry, in a tiny town called Godalming, next to a larger town called Guildford. The hotel where I stayed had a so-so pub and restaurant attached to it and there was nothing else within walking distance. Our office is also pretty much in the middle of nowhere – if you miss the food truck when it comes by at 10 in the morning, you’re SOL for lunch that day.

There was a Harley Davidson shop close to the office and I went over there on a break to drool over the heavy metal in the shop. I wondered, only half in jest, if I could pay for a bike with my Amex card and then ship it over as excess baggage on my return flight. (I told my wife we should go to the Harley shop in Manila on Saturday. Her response was basically fuggedaboutit.)

Also, parenthetically speaking, I have never been to the Middle East and planned to keep it that way but for reasons too complicated to go into I had to fly Emirates and transit in Dubai. Although I never set foot out of the Dubai airport, I was nervous my entire time there. I did see a branch of Shake Shack at the airport and was very tempted but it was 2 in the morning when I was there, I’d just had two meals on the plane, and wasn’t hungry enough for a burger.

I arrived in Godalming at 9 AM Sunday morning. The rooms were not ready for us and the pub was only serving breakfast. Finally got into my room at 11:30. Very weird. No refrigerator. No telephone. But one of the most comfortable hotel beds I’ve ever slept on and 200+ channels on the TV. Wifi was free for slow internet or 5 pounds a day for usable internet.

Early afternoon, I went down to the front desk of the hotel, the girl behind the counter had a badge that said “trainee.” I asked her if there were any other pubs or anything else within walking distance and she gave me directions that proved to be quite wrong. I went out the back of the hotel and found a path that ran along the River Wey and started walking.

It was a beautiful day. People were walking along or biking along the bath, with families or dogs in tow. Everyone was smiling and friendly. I saw some locks along the narrow river – one had a sign saying it was built in 1764. The narrow barges were rented for the day by families, and I stood and watched the families jump off the barges to work the locks. I asked some of them how much further to the closest pub and was told at least another 3 or 4 miles. (I have photos but no bandwidth for uploading at the moment. Maybe I’ll update this post with photos later.)

So I went back to the hotel and joined the rest of my group for Sunday dinner at the hotel restaurant. Monday, after 9 hours of meetings, we headed into downtown Guildford – a charming and spotlessly clean town with a shopping mall, a casino, a multiplex cinema and a branch of Jamie’s Italian, where we did the group dinner. (Verdict: everything was perfectly cooked, they clearly used quality ingredients, and yet it was kind of boring.)

Tuesday another full day of work then right to the airport, another transit in Dubai, eventually back to Manila. Coming out of the Manila airport at 10:30 PM on a weeknight, it was anarchy. The queues for taxis were indecently long. The touts were lined up asking if you wanted a taxi – I did ask out of curiosity and they wanted 5,000 pesos for what would be a 300 peso ride on the meter.

Fortunately my wife had decided to call a taxi driver she knew, have him pick her up at home, bring her to the airport, wait for me to come out and bring us back home. Normally he would have charged 1,000 for this (more than fair for the time and distance involved) but since he had to wait for me for awhile, we gave him a couple hundred pesos extra.

I woke up this morning unable to get either a 3G or 4G signal on my phone for some reason, so no internet connection at home, no way to check email, business or personal. Got dressed, went to the nearest internet cafe – three hours later I am still syncing email and I can see that I have 500 emails waiting for me, at least half of which I will actually have to read and deal with by tomorrow. Oh joy.

Anyway, the getting old bit ….

I’m tired. I’m jetlagged. So I’m cranky. Even standing on the roadside in Godalming having a smoke, or having a short stroll in Guildford, I found myself taken with how clean and orderly everything was. The streets, the side of the road, that river path. Everything was clean and precise. Everything seemed safe and comfortable.

Ignore for the moment how much everything cost. Ignore for the moment the video cameras mounted high on walls on every street corner.

I just found myself missing clean and orderly streets. I found myself missing roads where people obeyed the traffic laws. Taxis that use the meter, no questions asked. I thought to myself, “I could probably live here and be happy.” I thought to myself, “This is probably a sign of getting old.”

On further reflection, everything is quite expensive. London would be a one hour train ride away. I’d probably be happy there for a couple of weeks and then want to shoot myself out of boredom.

One of the hardest things to do in life is to be thankful for what you’ve got and not concentrate so much on the things you haven’t got. I’m working on it.

 

Paris Trip Notes

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As many of my readers are aware, I got married on December 1st. I took a few days off following the wedding but postponed the honeymoon till late January. The reason for this was that I knew I had a business trip coming up to the UK (Windsor, outside of London) and I figured that with my plane ticket paid for, that would be a nice savings for the trip.

When I looked online to check out visas for Filipinos visiting the UK, I saw that visa approval could take up to 6 weeks. Then I checked France and saw that it would take just 3 to 10 days. So I told my wife we’d be going to Paris. She’s never been outside of Asia in her life and I knew that anywhere in Europe would be exciting for her. Yes, the weather would probably suck in January but who cares – it’s still Paris.

The only flaw in my plan was that my flights were HK -> Heathrow, Heathrow -> Charles DeGaulle, CDG -> HK. She would have to fly on her own to Paris and I couldn’t get her on the same return flight as me. As it happens, we saved quite a bit of money by booking her via Amsterdam, and I was able to set a schedule for her that had us arriving at CDG at almost exactly the same time and departing from CDG on flights that were about an hour apart.

The next nerve-wracking bit was the application for the French visa – actually the Schengen visa, good for the entire Euro zone. The French consulate requires one to make an appointment online, and the earliest appointment I could get for her was January 16th – too close to her January 22nd departure date for comfort in my opinion. But in the end, it all worked out.

Now, Anthony Bourdain’s advice for Paris is that people who go there exhaust themselves by trying to do too much. He suggests just getting drunk and eating cheese. Cute, but a bit arrogant as well, coming from someone who has probably been to Paris at least 100 times and will return there at least another 100. For people who get there just once or twice in their lives, you gotta do what you gotta do in order to see the things everyone wants to see. I tried to find a middle ground – an itinerary that would leave us plenty of time for relaxing as well as fitting in the core sightseeing activities.

So on the evening of the 22nd, we met at CDG and took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Jardin Le Brea, located right at the border of the 6th and 14th arrondissements.  We arrived there around midnight, tossed the bags into the hotel room and went out in search of a late dinner. The first few places we walked into had already taken last orders.

Then we found a cozy spot called L’Atelier (not Joel Robuchon’s place). “A friendly pub with a great atmosphere” is how they describe themselves on their web site – and the description was accurate. I just went with a croque monsieur, I forget what my wife ordered, and we had a cheese plate and a lot of wine. And made friends easily with the people at the tables around us. (Everyone else there was French except for one guy from Morocco.) A nice start to the trip.

On Thursday, following breakfast at the hotel, we took a leisurely stroll through the back streets, looking longingly into the windows of classic boulangeries, patisseries, bucheries, charcuteries and fromageries. We made our way over to the Montparnasse Tower, possibly the only skyscraper in central Paris (not including the Eiffel Tower, of course). You can buy tickets to go up to the 56th floor and from there to the 59th floor rooftop deck, which we did.

From there, we bought Metro passes and made a beeline for the Arc d’ Triomphe. No, we didn’t climb the stairs to the top. Instead we did a leisurely stroll down the Champs D’Elysee. (I can report that, just as in Hong Kong, when you’re out on the town and in need of a toilet, McDonald’s is always there for you.)  We stopped into a branch of Paul for some baguettes (jambon and brie for my wife, saucisson for me) and some cake.

Back to the hotel to drop off the results of our shopping and then over to the Eiffel Tower – I’d bought tickets online for 4:30 though this time of year, advance tickets are probably not required. Also this time of year they don’t sell tickets in advance for the top of the tower, just the “2nd floor” due to the possibility of shitty weather and indeed, once there, the booths on the 2nd floor selling tickets to the top were all closed. So we strolled around, got some hot chocolate and found a comfy place to sit. But outside on the deck, it was just too damned windy to stay out there for long.

For dinner that night, I chose Vagenende Brasserie, a brasserie along Boulevard Saint-Germain that’s more than 100 years old and the place where I had my very first meal in Paris. It was every bit as good as I remembered and my wife was delighted with the quality of their classic fare.  After dinner, the combination of jetlag and wine was really hitting her, so it was back to the hotel and time for bed.

Following breakfast on Friday, we went to Notre Dame. We then walked around the area a bit, doing some souvenir shopping and then picking up our tickets for the Louvre. (You can buy your tickets in advance but unlike with the Eiffel Tower you cannot print them out yourself and you can’t pick them up from the museum; you have to find a branch of the ticket agency – Virgin’s shop on the Champs D’Elysee used to be the most convenient but that’s gone now. And again, this time of year, the advance tickets probably were not necessary as the line to get in was quite small.)

We had one of our few bad meals of the trip – a cafe chosen at random, a tiny menu that led me to think, “well, if they just have a few things, they must really know how to make them,” but both of our dishes were really poor.  It was following this lunch that my headaches with HSBC began.

Anyway, after giving up on the bank, we hit the museum.  We saw two of the “big three” – The Mona Lisa (which you could actually get a clear view of, the gallery was not jam packed) and the Venus De Milo. Sadly, for some reason Winged Victory of Samothrace was not on display.  We walked around randomly for a couple of hours until our legs started to give out (well, mine anyway). Back outside the museum, there was a Japanese video crew and a life-size Hello Kitty. Before they could stop us, my wife ran out and I was able to grab a few quick shots of our “celebrity sighting.”

Back to the hotel to rest up before dinner. My plan was for us to go to La Coupole, a historic brasserie near our hotel. But it was Friday night, 9 PM, and we hadn’t booked. We were told we could wait at the bar but it would be at least an hour and we were too hungry to wait.  So we went a few doors down to Le Dome, another art deco jewel (one Michelin star), where we were served a platter with enough shellfish (at least 20 varieties!) to feed an entire country. Crabs, prawns, langoustines, many types of oysters, mussels, clams, cockles, whelks and stuff I didn’t even know the names of. We didn’t finish it all but we came damned close.

Saturday was shopping day. Actually we started by going to the Palais Garnier and then the rooftop of Les Galeries Lafayette for another magnificent view. Another lunch at another branch of Paul, some browsing at Printemps, and then over to Les Marais for some serious shopping.  And then another patisserie where we could sit outside with some amazing cake and coffee before collapsing back at the hotel. Dinner that night was at Le Relais de l’Entrecote – one of its four branches was close to our hotel. The line was out the door but it moved fast.  One thing about this place – it’s cheap (by Parisian standards).  You pay around 23 Euros for salad, steak, fries and bread. The menu only offers cheese, desserts and wine. The only questions from your server are basically “how do you want your steak cooked” and “what do you want to drink.” I don’t think any wine on the list cost more than 40 Euros.

I had everything planned for Sunday, our final full day. I wanted to start off at Centre Pompidou and finish off with a stroll around Montmartre. Alas, it was not to be. I woke up on Sunday morning sick as a dog. I was showing all of the signs of food poisoning. How or where I got it, I can’t say. My wife certainly didn’t have it and we’d eaten all the same stuff, sharing everything. But I was so sick that I got to the point where I’d just drink some water and then throw that up moments later.

Of course my wife had to eat so I went out with her for lunch. She selected an Italian restaurant called Auberge de Venise.  This place seemed to have some history to it – some photos on the wall were from the 1920s when it was an American bar called, I think, Dingo. And the food looked amazing. She had some pasta, that was perfectly cooked. I had to order something and went for a bowl of minestrone. It might have been the best minestrone I’ve ever had but the bowl was the size of my head and I barely made a dent in it. The manager actually seemed quite upset by this but I told him I thought it was amazing but I was ill and really couldn’t eat and he let us escape with our lives.

I went back to the hotel to die some more while my wife walked around Montparnasse one final time.  For dinner, I still wasn’t ready to eat. She wanted to try a branch of a chain called Hippopotamus.  I was afraid this would turn out to be the Paris equivalent of Outback and, unfortunately, I was correct. I didn’t order anything and the only thing she enjoyed there was the bearnaise sauce. After dinner I picked up some yogurt from a nearby market (nope, couldn’t keep that down either).

Fortunately by Monday morning I was feeling better and we left the hotel early for our flights back to Hong Kong. Yes, it was a damned shame that I was sick for that final day. But the rest of the trip was fantastic – and the best part of it might well have been when my wife turned to me and said, “I know you love me, because you brought me here.” (She did also ask if my company had an office in Paris and if so, could I request a transfer there.)

I do want to add that my second visit to Paris was every bit as amazing as my first, probably even better because this time I wasn’t there alone. And once again, despite the stereotype, I found Parisians to be universally warm, friendly and helpful. It may be that I can speak a little French (albeit with a horrendous American accent) or that I was accompanied everywhere by a beautiful woman (and more than few times she got hit on when I’d leave her alone to go to the toilet). It was every bit as memorable as my first trip there.

I know some of you are probably wondering where all the photos are. I’ve been to Paris before and taken all of the standard shots of buildings and monuments and I think you can find better examples in any guide book. Most of the photos this time are the touristy shots – my wife in front of the Louvre, the two of us on the Eiffel Tower, and so on. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can see them there; I’ll spare everyone else. (For those who care about this sort of thing, I did not bring my Nikon D800 with me as I didn’t want to deal with the weight and also the bulk of carrying multiple lenses. I brought my Sony RX-10 as my main camera, and it did a mostly excellent job. I also brought my Sony RX-100 to have something pocket-sized for carrying around at night and that did okay too.)

And We're Home

Our trip to Paris was mostly great – mostly but not entirely because I woke up on Sunday morning sick as the proverbial dog. I had all the symptoms of food poisoning but how I got it, I don’t know. My wife and I basically ate all the same food (because we shared everything) except on Saturday afternoon, when we stopped for coffee at a patisserie and I had this amazing piece of chocolate cake called L’Elegance (which I pronounced the best candy bar I’d ever eaten).  Sunday, the first time I threw up, the first thing I tasted was chocolate.

At any rate, that put an end to our Sunday plans. Eventually I got to the point where I would drink some water and then throw even that up. It was crappy weather – cold and raining – so we stayed close to the hotel, going out twice so my wife could eat. After her dinner, I tried having a cup of yogurt, but even that didn’t want to stay down.

By Monday morning I was feeling weak – as you might expect – but strong enough to travel and so we left early for the airport and the long flight home. Fortunately I was able to eat two meals on the plane and keep them down – no small feat considering the quality of Cathay Pacific’s food in economy.

We will now proceed to be jet-lagged as hell.  Our flights left Monday around noon (we were on separate flights, long story) and arrived Tuesday morning and neither of us managed much sleep. We’ve both slept a lot today, which is okay for her, as she doesn’t have a job to go to tomorrow. I do.

I might post more details of what we did later on (not that there was anything really remarkable) but for now, I would like to recommend the hotel we stayed in – Hotel Jardin le Brea.  A three-star hotel costing well under 200 Euros per night, the staff all spoke English and were all amazingly friendly and helpful. The room size was small, of course, but adequate for our needs. The buffet breakfast was small but great quality. Free WiFi. Cable TV – which we didn’t think we’d need but of course did when we got stuck in the hotel for a day.

The location, just off the intersection of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail, meant that we had just a 2 minute walk to the metro and had dozens of bistros and cafes within a 5 minute walk.

The last bit to mention for now – HSBC. I was 110% certain that I had activated the overseas withdrawal thingie for every account I had months ago, when the new policy was enacted. But when I went online to check on that, I saw that it was enabled for every account I had except my Current account. Was it possible that I had omitted that one? Was it possible that the bank reset it when issuing my new Plus card? I’ll probably never know. Once I did activate it for the account, I was able to withdraw cash from an ATM with no problem.

However, that still doesn’t explain why HSBC ATMs told me my HSBC Union Pay card was “defective” and it doesn’t explain why that card didn’t work in ATMs of other banks that are on the Union Pay network (and oddly enough, I did manage to find some in Paris). Nor would it explain why the manager of an HSBC branch in Paris told me that I would probably have success using my HSBC ATM cards at almost any bank other than HSBC.